As we moved through the worship experience of Palm Sunday last week at Calvary Baptist Church, I couldn’t help but think back to the year before. In 2008, despite my two years of service in the music department there, I had not yet become a full, card-carrying (well, we really don’t have cards) member of the congregation. No one had ever treated me as an outsider, no one had ever pressured me to join — everyone I encountered had truly lived to their congregational mission of inclusion and acceptance.
Yet, I had not yet joined the church.
You would have had to know me for a long time to understand what an unusual experience in my life that “not-joining” was…I’m usually the first in line to sign on the dotted line, the first to send in my dues, definitely what one would call an “easy” joiner. And I was mightily puzzled by my own reticence…in front of me was everything I had been saying I was looking for…a community composed of people of great sincerity, of great inclusiveness, of depth of belief, people working hard to do the best that they could to represent the Gospel here on earth.
And still, I had not joined. Oh, I had been feeling the pull. Probably for several months before that Holy Week, I had felt my knees bending to rise when Pastor Amy issued the invitation at end of the service, but I had stopped myself. This seemed like the biggest committment that I could ever make, and I wanted to get it right. And then, there were the memories of Brenda D.
First, before I continue, I would like to issue my overall apology to Brenda for this blog entry, which, I am pretty certain she will never see. I’m certain that she has grown into an elegant, loving, kind woman, and has done much good in her life. But, in elementary school, she was the quintessential stereotype of the bratty pastor’s kid. And she formed forever my understanding of what it meant to be a Baptist.
Brenda’s father was a Missouri Synod Baptist, and very, very conservative. Brenda never smiled; Brenda couldn’t participate in folk dancing on Fridays in gym class; Brenda couldn’t play organized games if they involved boys at recess; she couldn’t sing a song in music class if it wasn’t a sacred song; and the list goes on and on and on with what Brenda couldn’t do. And, to make it worse, she delighted in sitting on the sideline, and smirking at the rest of us, and telling us that we would burn in Hell because we DID folk dance, sing, play softball with the boys, and well, just about anything that we did to have fun.
I didn’t see much of Brenda after the 6th grade, but there were others along the way to teach me that Baptists were narrow-minded, literal fundamentalists who felt they had all the answers, who felt that it was their way, or literally, the highway to Hell. And I went along my own spiritual path, leaving the Presbyterians and spending many years with Unity School of Religious Science, then, ultimately, nothing.
For five years in my adult life, no church. No community, no place to be on Sundays. I was done with all that, I thought. Beyond it — my spiritual understanding had superceded the need for such things. I was one of those Americans who would have responded “Believes in God, but doesn’t go to Church” to the Pew Research Center Poll on the state of religion in America.
Then, one year I thought I would make a little extra cash and do some subbing at churches on Easter, and I ended up, on Maundy Thursday, at Calvary Baptist Church. And on Easter Sunday, my first words to Pastor Amy were, “And what kind of Baptists are you people?”
It took two years from that event, to yet another Maundy Thursday evening, for me to realize it was time to join. I had answered all the hard questions for myself–I knew that I wasn’t joining just because I liked Amy or the people at the church, I had verified to my own satisfaction that they were as inclusive as they said they were, and I had repeatedly been in awe of the true sense of faith and love that I had experienced in that place. And, I had cried through a whole lot of sermons.
So I joined, but it has taken me to this next Maundy Thursday, to truly understand why. And I was greatly helped in that understanding by two pamphlets from the Baptist Heritage Library: “An Introduction to Baptist Principles” by Bill J. Leonard, and “The Meaning of the Baptist Experience,” by William E. Hull.
And do you know what I found out? I always was a Baptist.
The beliefs and experiences that link the Baptists together, they were the things I always believed, in fact, my belief in many of those things had been at the root of my failure to find community in my earlier religious experience: that baptism is an adult choice to make, that we are a priesthood of believers, all equal in our relationship to God, that testimony comes most strongly through the life you lead for others to see, that I as a believer, have the ability to read and interpret scripture, to speak directly to God, to hear God’s voice for myself, and the list goes on and on.
This Maundy Thursday, I know why I am a Baptist. And in that knowing, I hope, I hear and see more clearly, and have a stronger will to accomplish what I meant to accomplish. And for all this, and for the love and kindness of the people of the Calvary Baptist Church, I am deeply grateful.